There’s a Silver Lining in the Gas Price Gloom

March 13th, 2012

by and

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With gas prices hitting record highs rarely seen since 1918, it’s understandable that pundits and politicians are looking for someone to blame. Headlines from recent polls have all but shouted that President Obama’s popularity is taking a hit from bad news at the pump. The reality is, however, that voters are a lot more sophisticated than they often get credit for. In fact, the data suggests that voters are taking a much more realistic position about how high gas prices are impacting them and who is, and is not, to blame.

 This image is taken from The Washington Post.

The recognition, or resignation, that high gas prices may be here to stay is reflected in how much voters think Washington can do to change the situation. In 2005 and 2006 when The Washington Post asked if the Bush administration could do something about gas prices, 60-62% of those surveyed said yes. Today that figure is down to 50%, with 45% of those polled saying prices were beyond what the administration could reasonably control.

This makes sense. In May 2011, we pointed out that until American drivers have an alternative to powering their cars and trucks with gasoline, we will remain captive to swings in the global oil market. There’s nothing nefarious about this. It is simply a reality that, without a choice between gas, electricity, natural gas, or some other fuel, drivers often have little choice but to pay more money to drive. That is why nudging the private sector to make vehicles far more fuel efficient and investing in new technologies to provide choices to drivers, as the Obama Administration has done, is the only real way for Americans to escape the burden of high gas prices.

Contrary to being all bad news, the latest poll in the Post appears to indicate that voters get this. Far more than any time over the previous six years of rising gas prices, they see the current rise as more of the same. In fact, fewer people are assigning blame to the President for gas prices than blamed Bush back in 2005 and 2006.

When asked if the gas prices are causing financial hardship for them or anyone in their household, 63% of voters said yes. That may seem dreadfully high, but in fact, it is the lowest percentage of voters feeling the impact of gas prices in three years, since May 2008. Only 36% of respondents in the Post poll said the financial hardship experienced was “serious,” also the lowest total since May 2008. And the 37% answering “no, it has not caused financial hardship”? That’s the highest number of voters who do not feel pain from the pump seeping into their wallets since May 2008.

After living through a scary spike in gas prices and the financial collapse of 2008 and a slow but growing recovery, perhaps voters are realists. In fact, they may even be ready and hungry for good news. Bloomberg conducts a monthly survey of consumer confidence, known as the Consumer Comfort Index (COMFCOMF). It was minus 36.7 in the period ending March 4, the highest since April 2008, up from minus 38.8.

High gas prices have a real impact on people’s lives. The cost of everything from driving to food to doing business goes up. But after 15 price spikes in the last 25 years, it appears that the public recognizes more than Washington that the solution is not more drilling, investigating excess speculation, or releasing more hot air. They have baked this into their budgets. While they’re not happy about it, they’d prefer to focus on moving forward. That’s a lesson many in Washington would do well to follow.